Past Lives Review: Brief Encounters through the Multiverse

An extraordinary feature debut for Korean-Canadian director Celine Song

The best film to tackle questions of the multiverse isn’t a superhero movie. It’s an independent drama inspired by a brief encounter years in the making. Past Lives, an extraordinary debut feature by Celine Song, sees Nora (Greta Lee) straddling worlds and identities as she finds herself caught between two loves. The film opens with the provocative image of Nora, seated between two men. An offscreen pair of people-watchers speculates about the trio’s relationship. One wonders if the Korean-Canadian Nora the brother of the Korean man, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), and if the white American, Arthur (John Magaro), is her boyfriend. Or the two Koreans are dating and the other guy’s a third wheel. Maybe they’re a throuple or a love-triangle, but as Past Lives builds the story behind this complicated yet tender image, Song deftly probes the loves that define and transform one’s life.

Hae Sung, it turns out, is neither Nora’s brother nor her beau. Instead, he’s her childhood friend. Past Lives observes as 12-year-old Nora and Hae Sung say goodbye when Nora’s family emigrates from Korea to Canada, much like Song did herself a lifetime ago. The kids have an obvious connection, which Song marks with a farewell of remarkable emotional restraint.

Flash a dozen years forward and Nora now lives in New York City. She’s a playwright and one gets the sense that she’s a romantic at heart. By happenstance, she stumbles upon a query that Hae Sung posted on Facebook inquiring about the friend he knew long ago. (He was searching for Nora by her Korean name.) The two quickly connect via Facebook, and then meet by Skype. They talk for hours and quickly re-establish the bond that brought them together as kids.

Bridging Missed Connections

Just when Past Lives seems like it’s going to be yet another COVID-era production fuelled by two people sitting at their laptops, it isn’t. The pair quickly realizes that half a world separates them. Connecting with a past life means missing out on the present one. Rather than agree to meet, they pause the thread of their missed connection.

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As years go by and Nora eventually meets the third man from that striking image, she and Hae Sung wrestle with questions of things that could have been. Nora’s life with Arthur in New York seems perfectly content. They have a natural rhythm, a home, and good friends. There’s nothing really wild or spicy happening here. Song doesn’t present moments for any real sparks to fly between Lee and Magaro. Rather, Past Lives invites them to create a portrait of a home that feels lived in. They’re past the honeymoon stage and fine with it.

But when Hae Sung reconnects with Nora years later, something changes. Nora, brought to life by Lee’s remarkably stirring and soulful performance, displays a palpable ache when considering her friend. There’s a sense that Hae Sung represents half of Nora’s self. Arthur speaks some Korean with Nora, but she can’t deny the sense of loss that grows over time.

Song deftly injects considerations of immigrant experiences and the loves that one carries with them while creating a new life elsewhere. Nora and Hae Sung have shared baggage as the query of what might have been weighs on them. Hae Sung—dashing, attractive, and holding a good job—doesn’t necessarily represent a sexier option over Arthur. He stands for Nora’s other life, her Korean half, and the chance to bridge two parts of a whole that Nora’s can’t fuse.

In-yun and Soul Mates

Song explores this bond through the concept of in-yun when Nora broaches the subject of her friendship to Arthur. In-yun is a Korean idea of fate, destiny, and connection. It suggests that a bond between two people forms through interactions in previous lives. A fateful glance, brushing shoulders with a stranger on a street, or a first date that didn’t lead to a second one in one life might inspire a magnetic pull in another. Like multiple Spider-Men and Spider-Women jumping universes to battle baddies, in-yun suggests that landing one’s soul mate is a process arrived upon through long-term encounters with multiple selves.

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Unlike Spider-Man’s ability to verse-hop, though, Nora knows she lives in the present. Through deft glances and beautifully downplayed exchanges in which Nora juggles the roles of wife, friend, translator, and intermediary, Past Lives confronts the impossibility of having it all when it comes to life. Past Lives takes audiences through the emotional roller coaster of the Before trilogy with the economy of Brief Encounter. There’s not a wasted second here, as is the case with loves that define our lives whether they stay or go. Eye-line matches and reaction shots reveal a delicate tango of love and loss.

Lee particularly commands the film’s emotional arc. The actor (best known for playing Natasha Lyonne’s friend in Netflix’s Russian Doll) perfectly jives with Song’s aesthetic. The naturalism of Lee’s performance sees Nora wrestle with everything bottled up inside. A deceptively simple shot of Nora and Hae Sung exchanging glances observes two people sizing up years of regret and assessing the future. In the silence of the film hangs a bitter truth that little connects them beyond fond memories from decades ago.

A Delicate Love Triangle

The film leaves one in suspense as the clock ticks on Hae Sung’s visit. The difference between Celine and Jesse flirting over a missed train, however, is the life Nora’s built with Arthur. Whatever she chooses, she loses something dear. Teo Yoo, meanwhile, plays Hae Sung with effectively charming bashfulness. With how Hae Sung lights up in Nora’s presence, one can tell that he’s carried a torch for years. Past Lives complicates the love triangle by refusing to position Arthur as a foil. There’s nothing wrong with him, and Magaro ensures that he’s perfectly likable. Choosing Arthur just represents a certain finality to Nora’s Korean life.

Yet in a shot that illustrates Song’s ingenuity as a visual storyteller, Nora strolls along one of the many sidewalks of New York. The camera follows Lee as she walks to her left, and then to her right, navigating these two worlds. As Lee grapples with Nora’s composure, one sees her wrestle with what her heart and her Spidey senses tell her. It’s a delicately devastating, masterfully told moment: one of the most down to earth, honest, and authentic commentaries yet about the messy cruelty of love.

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Past Lives opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on June 8.



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